Date of Degree

6-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Art History

Advisor

Siona Wilson

Committee Members

Anna Indych-López

Marta Gutman

Brent Hayes Edwards

Subject Categories

African American Studies | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology

Keywords

Harlem, Art History, Exhibitions, Painting, Sculpture, Photography, Printmaking

Abstract

For almost a century, Harlem has carried a symbolic weight that transcends the physical confines of upper Manhattan. In 1925, the philosopher and critic Alain Locke dubbed Harlem a “mecca,” a spiritual home that attracted people of African descent from around the world. Locke dubbed the cultural movement he chronicled in Harlem a “renaissance”—a term that describes both the “rebirth” of Black people as modern subjects and the resulting artistic effluence. In so doing, he cemented the neighborhood’s indelible connection to racial progress and artistic experimentation. Even as Harlem’s reputation has oscillated between the twined discourses of “mecca” and “ghetto,” art has been central to its singular importance within the United States and the larger African diaspora.

This dissertation, the first art historical study of Harlem after the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, considers this relationship within a drastically different historical context: the social and artistic revolutions of the 1960s. Organized as a series of case studies—on exhibitions, abstract painting and sculpture, photography, and printmaking—it examines how and why the decade’s struggles for racial justice prompted African American and Puerto Rican artists to engage Harlem in their work. For artists like Romare Bearden, William T. Williams, Melvin Edwards, Gordon Parks, and members of the printshop Taller Boricua, the Harlem Renaissance offered a compelling historical model for framing art as a racial project. But their work engaged issues of poverty, urban renewal, segregation, and decolonial struggle that were thoroughly contemporary. As these artists negotiated these investments, they reconfigured the formal contours their artistic mediums, engaging with many of the most pressing issues at the center of artistic practice in the post war period, including the format and function of exhibitions, the place of the body in modernist painting and sculpture, the politics of documentary photography, and the ability of print to forge political and diasporic identities. By pairing discussions of these formal questions with analysis of processes that shaped Harlem physically, socially, and discursively, “After the Renaissance” demonstrates that the “radicality” of 1960s art was not merely a question of new genres or new media but was also fundamentally indebted to ongoing tensions that defined life in urban Black communities in the United States.

The project is comprised of four chapters, each of which couples an artistic medium with an urban or historical process that I argue is central to understanding 1960s Harlem. These include: exhibition and the neighborhood’s relationship to the Harlem Renaissance, abstraction and the changing terrain of its physical landscapes, photography and the intertwined phenomena of poverty and urban uprising, and printmaking and the networks of diaspora. Chapter One analyzes the curatorial logic and social effects of the 1967 exhibition The Evolution of Afro-American Artists 1800-1950, co-curated by Romare Bearden and Carroll Green. Chapter Two interrogates how processes of aesthetic and spatial abstraction intersect in the painting and sculptures of the collective Smokehouse Associates. Chapter Three mines the relationship between race, poverty, and documentary photography in Gordon Parks’s 1968 photo essay “A Harlem Family.” And Chapter Four considers the radical politics and Afro-Taíno aesthetics of the East Harlem print shop Taller Boricua.

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